Aquavit: The History Behind This Flavourful Spirit

Aquavit: The History Behind This Flavourful Spirit

in, vodka, and whisky -- these are just some of the most commonly known spirits in the market today, but there’s a rising star that starting to get noticed. Aquavit is slowly breaking into the North American cocktail scene thanks to its rich history and distinct flavour. The name itself is derived from the Latin term “aqua vitae” which means “water of life”, which ironically fits the story behind this spirit which was initially thought of being the cure to many of life’s ailments.

If this is the first time you’ve heard of aquavit, you’re not alone. While it’s slowly gaining momentum in North America, this spirit hasn’t gotten nearly as much recognition as it deserves, mainly because there isn’t a lot of options to begin with, especially in Canada. Here at Spirit of York, we’re trying to flip the script and reintroduce Canadians to some of the magic this spirit offers by creating our own.

But before we get into that, let’s take a look into the history behind this flavourful spirit:

What Is Aquavit?

Aquavit is Scandinavia's boozey drink of choice. From Norway, Sweden to Denmark -- if you ever find yourself in any of these countries, it won’t be long before you’re handed a shot of it. Much like vodka, aquavit is distilled from grains or potatoes. It uses spices such as fennel, dill, citrus, orange peel, fennel or coriander to flavour it up, but caraway is typically the main spice used to make it. It’s very strong, typically sitting at 40% ABV or higher. Anything below 37.5 ABV and many don’t consider it aquavit anymore. While it’s typically clear in colour, aquavit can also come in golden-yellow which suggests barrel aging or caramel flavouring; something spirit brands have been known to sneak in.

The Back Story

Aquavit goes back 500 years, with some of the first mentions of it in 1531. That year, Lord of Bergenshus Castle in Denmark wrote to Olav Engelbrektsson, the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Norway and said:

“Dear lord, will your grace know that I send your grace some water with messenger Jon Teiste which is called Aqua vite and the same water helps for all his illness that a man can have internally.”

This is how aquavit initially got its reputation for it’s healing properties. To this day, many believe it helps with digestive issues, which is why it’s traditionally taken before big meals.

Aquavit is also historically known to be the drink of choice for the Vikings, who were known to drink it out of enemy skulls. The Viking traditional eventually led to their famous “Skål” toast which is still done to this day during celebratory occasions.

One of the most interesting storylines in aquavit’s history is how some versions of it came to be golden-yellow. It started with Norway's famous Linie, who are known for sending their aquavit to sea in sherry oak casks. Their aquavit travels from Norway to Australia and back again before being sold around the world. While it sounds like a long and tedious process, the humidity and temperature changes at sea have been known to bring out distinct flavours in the spirit that are hard to imitate on land.

This tradition started by accident back in 1805 when the Norwegian trade family Lysholm shipped their aquavit to the West Indies. The product didn’t receive the reception they wanted and was shipped back home. But when it arrived in 1807, the aquavit looked and tasted completely different (and better!) than it did when it was first sent. The barrel aged aquavita was such a hit, the Norwegians stuck with it ever since.

How To Enjoy Aquavit

Aquavit is a celebratory spirit which is typically brought out during weddings, birthdays and the holidays. Generally Scandanavians like to drink their Aquavit straight up. For places like Sweden and Denmark, aquavit is served chilled in a shot glass, while those in Norway prefer to serve it at room temperature. If you really want to shake things up, pair aquavit and beer together -- another way Norwegians like to enjoy the spirit. Take a shot and follow it up with a couple gulps of beer. Needless to say, things can get wild very quickly so enjoy responsibly.

If you’re into food pairings, aquavit works best with Scandanavian and Nordic foods like strong cheese, charcuterie, smoked fish and of course, pickled herring. Since caraway is the main spice used to make this spirit, it typically pairs well with these traditional dishes.

At the end of the day, the way you enjoy aquavit is entirely up to you. Many enjoy taking it in one shot, while others enjoy mixing it into their cocktails. In North America, aquavit is typically used as a vodka or gin substitute so if you’re a little unsure as to where to begin, a little aquavit, tonic and lime in a glass is a good place to start.

Try It Yourself: Dala Horse Cocktail

If you’re looking to try aquavit in Ontario, have a taste of this spirit with Spirit Of York. We’ve married classic ingredients like caraway and dill, along with other flavourful botanicals that create robust flavours that finish off with a great pumpernickel rye bread aftertaste.

To help bring these flavours to life, enjoy our aquavit in a Dala Horse cocktail. It’s perfect for those who can appreciate bold taste and looking to try something different at cocktail hour.


1.5 oz Spirit of York Aquavit
0.5 oz Spirit of York Honey Ginger Simple Syrup
0.5 oz Lemon Juice
Soda Water
Dried Rose Petal


In a tall glass with ice, combine Spirit of York Aquavit, simple syrup, lemon juice and soda water together and stir lightly. Top it off with some dried rose petals and serve. Then don’t forget to do a “Skål” toast and enjoy!
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